“Win at all costs” – the barriers to competing fairly

Sport is viewed in almost all societies as the essence of healthy competition and meritocracy. Since ancient civilisations, man has been preoccupied with determining who amongst its kind are the fastest, the strongest and the most agile. This meritocratic race has always been plagued with people subverting the rules of the game to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents. Society has always sought to combat this foul play, erecting and maintaining institutions that set the rules of the game and govern the competitors. Often these institutions have not been sufficient to prevent cheating. Society has witnessed many scandals wreaking havoc in what should be a fair game. This essay seeks to show how the human attitude to “win at all costs” has dominated both sports and our globalised society and, crucially, undermined the principles of responsible courage among competitors and citizens alike.

Sabotage is not common in sport, but improving one’s own chances of winning by taking performance enhancing drugs has been documented as early as the 3rd century BC at the Olympic games (De Merode 1999). Competitors that dope have been subject to lifetime bans, heavy fines, removal of titles, public humiliation, and even death, as seen in the tragic case of Knud Enemark Jensen who fell off his bicycle under the influence of amphetamines (Maraniss 2008). By August 2004, the International Olympic Committee required all Olympic sports to adopt the World Anti-Doping Code.

International sport, a product of the globalised world, provides a case in point.  Through it, the interests of big business, national governments and individual participants are played out on the international stage. In recent years, with technological advances and mass media, international sport has become even more popular and some events are watched by billions around the world[1]. All of these interests, from the fans to the transnational corporations, are solely interested in backing the winning team. With such a well-defined target, the incentive structure that underpins the actions of competitors and their supporters is readily accessible and will reveal the prevalence of the “win at all costs” approach.

Earlier this year, Lance Armstrong gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey admitting to have taken performance-enhancing drugs throughout his professional cycling career. The interview was streamed live over the Internet and millions watched on in amazement[2]. How could a cancer survivor, philanthropist and ex-professional athlete be implicated in what Travis Tygart called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”? The answer was aptly summarised by the man himself: “Win at all costs”. He believed that taking cortisone, testosterone and EPO was a necessary component just like “putting air in the tyres and water in our bottles”. He knew it was against the rules, he knew the penalties for cheating and he indeed was not acting alone but “with the help of a small army of enablers, including doping doctors, drug smugglers, and others within and outside the sport and on his team” (USADA 2012). Yet he was absolutely sure that the team he led would not be caught and they managed to avoid detection for almost fifteen years. It took this long for twelve of his former US postal service teammates to come forward and give statements under oath, which sealed Lance’s fate. This was after a FBI investigation, several USADA enquiries, a retroactive positive test for EPO and several libel court cases that he fought against people that spoke out against him. The institutions designed to prevent cheating and encourage competitors and their support teams to display responsible courage had failed. Ultimately, this failure allowed a cheat to win the sport’s most highly regarded accolade seven years in a row and gain “miracle status”.

Lance in his interview describes it as physically impossible to win the Tour de France without doping in the years he competed. This statement gains credibility from winners and top riders of the Tour, in the past fifteen years, losing their podium places; Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich and Bernhard Kohl[3]. Furthermore, the UCI (International Cycling Union) has said that the tour titles won by Lance Armstrong will not be awarded to anyone else, indicating the lack of a clean pair of hands to receive the titles. It seems that almost all the other teams believed that doping was the only route to winning, highlighting the anxiety, conformity and despondence that not only prevailed but also engulfed the sport. Commercial interests and the desire to win the tour meant that no team was able to step outside the dominant paradigm of doping and take the decision to reform the sport. Professional cycling suffered at the hands of conformity around a fake ideal where the people involved could not show the courage to lift themselves out of a drug-fuelled reality.

Our capitalist society has come to view itself in a similar way to cycling, with growing inequality aspiring to the meritocratic ideal of competition. Our capitalists and political elite are seen as winners of a Darwinian survival of the fittest. We succeed power and influence to those educated in the world’s greatest institutions and those who gain credibility through amassing wealth. However, competition in our society is not just about acknowledging the highest achievers but also about creating an environment of prosperity for its citizens. The hierarchical structure developed on the back of this competition does not allow for questioning and rethinking by people lower down. The highest achievers largely see their success as their own and stand in the way of shifting away from what poses as meritocracy and towards a society in which the concept of meritocracy is used in the public interest.

Having moved away from the Investment Bank partnership model, Goldman Sacks now calls itself “a meritocracy”[4]. It uses the competition for bonuses and promotions to incentivise workers to deliver the best for their clients. The riders in the peloton of global banking chased after “yellow-jersey” status: becoming a partner or director. The path to partner in most banks is well defined. You join the bank as an associate and step onto a well-formed incentive ladder where your salary will increase as you ascend the rungs of the selective promotion stages. In order to do this, associates famously stay in the office late into the night to prepare documents and presentations to be on the desk for senior workers in the morning. Juniors face the brunt of the headwind but are promised that if they perform well, they can get a pay increase and reduce their working hours. This mirrors the strategy in cycling where weaker riders are sacrificed by riding just in front of the leader of the team, cutting his wind resistance, in order to preserve his energy for when it really matters. These strategies bring into relief the hierarchical structure of both finance and cycling which supresses the emergence of new ideas and directions.

Hierarchies breed superstars. In sport they are idolized for their physical feats, as they compete against the rest and beat them. The reason why sports personalities are widely held in such high regard ties in to our unanimous support for meritocracy. The anger arising from Lance Armstrong’s story demonstrates that society wishes to bestow honour on deserved victors. In the case of cycling, reward became unfair in such a profound way that those seven years are being erased from memory. The sport now faces a new challenge, to construct the right system of incentives to govern the sport so that athletes compete on a level playing field. The same gauntlet has been laid down for society stemming from the current crisis.

In designing this new playing field it is important to recall that one rider will still be crowned at the end of the Tour de France and high salaries will be paid to CEOs. This system of rewards acknowledges the contribution that they bring to society and the value of competition in stretching people to their limit. Lance Armstrong led a team that went out to win the Tour every year, they did not race extensively during the year in order to preserve their energy for the event that mattered. Lance knew that he needed a team around him and designed a system of incentives such that a Code of Silence prevailed amongst his fellow riders through their own self-interest[5]. Lance also used the concept of self-interest in defending himself against those that spoke out against him. He claimed that they were bitter, jealous and out to get him highlighting what he claimed were their own interests in his downfall. Last year, Greg Smith, a former vice-president of Goldman Sachs quit his job and wrote a damning letter stating that the environment was “toxic and destructive”. Goldman Sachs response was that he was a “disgruntled employee that missed out on a one million pound bonus”. The credibility of a whistle-blower is somewhat undermined if it is their interest to take the courage to come forward with information, as there is some concern that it may be fabricated. Indeed, last year, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), in the USA, awarded Bradley Birkenfeld $104 million for exposing illegal offshore banking concerns were raised about the incentives for future whistle-blowers. It is the biggest payout for a whistle-blower made by the IRS and this might create too large an incentive for people go out to try and bring down firms for personal gain. Furthermore, as we have seen in both the current banking crisis and crisis in professional cycling, the regulator is also not immune to capture and huge rewards have led to corruption. The use of explicit incentives to encourage whistle-blowers will be necessary but not sufficient to move society onto a level playing field.

Our society’s version of meritocracy has not served its purpose. Lance Armstrong and the banks were able to create a system of conformity in which people were complicit in illegal and socially reckless behaviour. This essay has shown how society has echoed the competition of sport in picking its elite and rewarding them accordingly. In attempts to govern or guide the principle of meritocracy, governing bodies and regulators have fallen short to leaders who choose to “win at all costs”. In order to change this, society needs to depart from its reliance on sports-like competition where the winner takes all. The rise of inequality that we have seen across most of the globe during the last two decades is a challenge that the young generation must face but this can only be done by not only ensuring a level playing field but also changing the way in which society rewards the outcomes of the game.

The effectiveness of explicit incentives to change the mode of current thought or to encourage a whistleblowing is limited. Unfortunately for professional cycling, the yellow jersey is the only goal that riders will aim for and therefore regulation and draconian punishments are the only way to ensure healthy competition. The “win at all costs” mentality will always prevail as evidenced by history. Society should heed this warning of the negative implications of defining greatness so narrowly. The current economic crisis provides the opportunity for society has to rethink its criteria for awarding success. Much of this is already underway as witnessed in the social movements of the Arab spring and Occupy Wall Street. However, it is has been largely unsuccessful in curbing the rewards accruing to the elites. Armed with new criteria for our meritocratic society, the change will only arise if we are able to implement these new principles in all competitions that we as citizens are engaged in. The anger felt by the unapologetic inequality promises a different system of incentives based on a broader the definition of success, not the uni-dimensional seen in cycling.


Bloomberg (2008) “China’s Hu Opens Beijing Games to Global Audience of Billions” [Accessed online 28-01-13] at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aewEiMi7BZ0Y

De Merode, A. (1999) Introduction and background. International Olympic Committee (Ed.), Doping: An IOC White paper, Lausanne.

Huffington Post (2012)  “Oprah’s Lance Armstrong Interview Viewed By 28 Million Worldwide” [Accessed online 28-01-13} at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/oprahs-lance-armstrong-interview-28-million-worldwide_n_2530338.html

Maraniss, D. (2008). Rome 1960: The Olympics that changed the world. Simon & Schuster.

USADA (2012) “Reasoned Decision” [Accessed online 28-01-13] at http://d3epuodzu3wuis.cloudfront.net/ReasonedDecision.pdf

[1] Approximately 2.3 billion television viewers tuned in for opening ceremony of China’s first Olympics; 1.3 billion watched the 2006 soccer World Cup final in Berlin (Bloomberg 2008)

[2] According the Huffington Post (2012) 28 million people watched the interview, in 30 languages across 190 countries

[3] Note that this list is not exhaustive and excludes potential challengers who were caught doping before the race or during the race like Frank Schleck

[4] This can be found on the first sentence of the Goldman Sachs recruitment website http://www.goldmansachs.com/careers/why-goldman-sachs/our-culture/index.html

[5] See Andreu Frankie affidavit “Self-interest is a significant reason for the omerta – the Code of Silence that is prevalent in professional cycling when it comes to discussing the truth about doping.”